In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act which designated Mount Zirkel as a wilderness area. Later additions increased the area adding the Watershed Creek as well as part of the Encampment River. Named after German geologist Ferdinand Zirkel, this 159,935-acre area of natural beauty is protected not just for the low-elevation forests, 70 glacial lakes, and numerous rivers that flow from them, but also because of the diverse ecological systems for which the wilderness offers a natural habitat. Apart from the fascinating scenery and wildlife, hikers would be thrilled to know that 155 miles of trails are waiting for them to explore and enjoy.
Gilpin Lake & the Zirkel Circle
About 45 minutes north of Steamboat is one of the most spectacular hikes up to Gilpin Lake as part of the Zirkel Circle. Start your day at the Slavonia Trailhead at the end of Seedhouse road on CR 129 and head into the heart of Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area on trail 1161 to Gilpin Lake. This trail quickly intersects with trail 1150 towards Gold Creek Lake. You can choose either direction to complete the Zirkel Circle. Staying strait towards Gilpin Lake allows you to get to Gilpin Lake quicker. From here you can decide to complete the loop by ascending up to the saddle before descending down towards Gold Creek Lake and back to the intersection of the two trails. There are a few stream crossings along the way. Be sure to bring plenty of food, water and fowl weather gear just in case.
Rainbow Lake Trail
On the other side of Rabbit Ears Pass towards Walden, this trail which starts from the Rainbow Lake trailhead is wide enough for an ATV to pass thanks in part to the many pines killed by beetles. But once the trail cuts into Mount Zirkel Wilderness it narrows down and follows a ridgeline. As you gain elevation keep an eye to the south for the Rabbit Ears, a popular rock formation. You’ll also notice that the trail neatly cuts across a forest where aspen trees are on one side and conifers are on the other like two teams ready to charge. Once you reach the Rainbow Lake you’ll have the choice either to leave the trail to explore the lake or stick to the trail. At Norris Creek, the trail becomes more challenging as you head to the Slide Lake.
More Trailheads in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area
Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area has about nine trailheads that criss-cross it, offering different levels of challenge to the hiker. Other notable trailheads include Beaver Creek Trailhead, Buffalo Pass Trailhead, Buffalo Ridge Trailhead, and Mad Creek Trailhead. Make sure to study the map of the trail and its conditions before you head there.
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